Nostra Aetate – 50 years later

Nostra Aetate changed the Church from as a predatory bully, to a world faith ready to discourse with other world faiths.

A TAPESTRY with the image of Pope John XXIII hangs on the facade of St. Peter’s facade during a beatification ceremony in 2000. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A TAPESTRY with the image of Pope John XXIII hangs on the facade of St. Peter’s facade during a beatification ceremony in 2000.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
October 28 is the 50th anniversary of the Vatican document “Nostra Aetate,” with its ground-breaking chapter on the Church and the Jews, the first draft of which was completed in November, 1961.
Years ago there was a light-hearted book about English history called 1066 and All That, which passed judgment on events by saying, “That was a good thing” or “That was a bad thing.” Borrowing its terminology, Nostra Aetate was a good thing.
The Second Vatican Council (“Vatican II”), of which it was a major element, was one of the seminal achievements of modern history. It moved the Catholic Church away from defiant rejection of modernity to cordial conversation with the world. From then onwards, Christianity would never be the same again, nor would the world. Nostra Aetate also changed the landscape for ever. Religious diversity became for the Church an issue for engagement, not merely an irritant. The Jewish chapter of Nostra Aetate began to overturn a two-millennial culture of opposition. In all these respects the Church has tried to be true to its new self, though not without occasional difficult moments.
Today’s vantage point is near enough yet far enough away to understand the full significance of 1965, the year the Nostra Aetate was promulgated. That understanding cannot come by looking at the event without text or context but needs to be dynamic, as part and the cusp of a movement. So let me address Nostra Aetate dynamically and ask what was before it, what was around it, what was after it.
What was before it?
here were centuries of Christian antagonism to outsiders, especially to Jews. The diversity of religions had only one value, as a challenge to the Church’s missionary energies.
Other faiths could not, by definition, be valid or legitimate. Judaism in particular had to be condemned.
It was not yet conceivable that a pope could say, as did Pius XI in 1938, “Spiritually we all are Semites.”
It was more likely that the voice heard was that of Innocent III, who declared in 1169, “The Jews are paying for their crime by God’s eternal banishment, and through them the truth of our faith is confirmed.”
The long, unpleasant story resounds through time. The first Church Council, taking place in Jerusalem before the parting of the ways of Christianity and Judaism, considered whether gentile followers of Jesus needed to keep the commandments.
The rejection of the full spectrum of Jewish law was a major element in the shift from Judaism.
Subsequent Councils, while not limited to Jewish issues, took it for granted that Judaism had lost its value and place in the Divine plan.
The Councils constantly reaffirmed the rejection of religious tolerance. Probably none was as far-reaching as the first Vatican Council in 1896, which established papal infallibility and closed off dialogue with modernity, denying legitimacy to evolution, socialism and political liberalism, and warning against religious tolerance.
Yet within a few decades came Pope John XXIII, called in an obituary tribute “a man with a flaring intuition of our century.” Within months, John acknowledged the need for conversation with the modern world, thereby gaining sufficient credibility for the Church to enable the whole of humanity, for all its theological problems with Catholicism, to regard the pope as the world’s moral leader. During the long incumbency of John Paul II, any papal response to events or moral dilemmas regularly evoked grumbles, but the world knew that religion had spoken.
Why Vatican II was necessary is a matter for the historians. Pope John himself could hardly believe what he had initiated. He called it “a little holy madness.” It had unique symbolic meaning. Not that everything old had been rejected: in some respects it re-stated historic positions.
What was new was the attitude to other religions and especially Judaism.
There were critical questions to be dealt with. Was the Jewish chapter of the declaration to be phrased negatively, merely a long-needed repudiation of anti-Semitism? Was anything to be said about the continuing value of Judaism and the enduring nature of God’s covenant with the Jewish people? Catholics and Jews both lobbied those charged with the wording, leaving Cardinal Bea to weave a way through difficult paths. The result was a document which some believed went too far and others criticized as not going far enough. The result has its drawbacks, but it did remove what has been called the “mentality of opposition between Jew and Christian.”
The Church rejected the doctrine that Christians had superseded Jews as the people of God (though it perpetuated historical errors such as “The Jewish authorities... pressed for the death of Christ”). It saw that Christian love had become hatred toward Jews, even though Jesus was Jewish. It understood why Jews had no esteem for Christians, though Jewish thinkers such as Maimonides and Menahem Me’iri remained respectful of Christianity and Islam even while ruling that these faiths were in error.
By modern times Catholics were not the only Christians, nor the only Christians to follow what Jules Isaac called “the teaching of contempt.”
But it was Catholics who most needed to exorcise the anti-Jewish ghosts, and Nostra Aetate showed they had the moral courage to do so.
What was around it?
What feeling do we sense in the document? What does it say between the lines? We need to know not only what was said but what was intended.
We see Nostra Aetate finding in the Hebrew Bible a striking resource and perspective. The document follows the early chapters of Genesis, seeing all humanity in the image of God. It echoes the Tower of Babel story that sees human diversity as part of the Divine design. It reflects the prophets who envisaged all the nations making their separate ways to worship God.
We also find a distinction between Judaism and Christianity on the one hand, and the non-monotheistic faiths on the other. While admitting the “true and holy in these religions,” the document cannot ascribe Divine revelation to the other faiths, but sees Judaism and its daughter Christianity as linked. It accepts its Jewish origins while not denying its conviction that it has the true light, but it no longer argues that Judaism had lost its lasting value. It makes it heretical to be an anti-Semite and/ or to demonize the Jewish people, either of ancient times or of today. It does not yet face up to the practical problem of how to handle New Testament texts that give the Jews bad press, but it says that the culture of opposition is no longer acceptable.
Scholars object that the document seems to forgive the Jewish people for a crime they did not commit. They question references to Jewish leaders having pressed for Jesus’ death and passages such as this: “Jerusalem did not recognise the time of her visitation.”
Some commentators imply that the vaunted goodwill of the document was merely a façade.
The disappointment was real and genuine. More judicious phrases could have been adopted. The final version was a compromise which in some respects fell short of the bold and courageous intention of John XXIII – not only in the apparent inability to use completely consistent wording but also some reservations when it came to the repudiation of anti-Semitism. The policy was clear: anti-Semitism was not to have a home in the Catholic world. But instead of condemning anti-Semitism, the document “decried” it, though later documents did strengthen the language and explained that John XXIII had not wished the Vatican Council to issue condemnations of anything.
The document cannot, however, be faulted in its iteration that the human community is one. It rejects all forms of prejudice and tells believers to live in and at peace with all others, though of course a Jewish reader would prefer a positive statement about human nature that does not need to rely on the old Original Sin doctrine that all men are (equally) sinners.
What was after it?
Nostra Aetate, for all its defects, heralded a new age. Have these 50 years implemented the hope? Is the document workable? Despite the difficult moments, Nostra Aetate has worn well and turned out to be a good thing.
Rev. Dr. Cornelius Rijk said, less than three years after Nostra Aetate: “A slow but sound and effective change has been taking place in the Church... The painful misunderstandings of centuries cannot be removed in a single year, but there is no doubt that the Church, during the Vatican Council, sincerely sought a new and better understanding of itself... One of the points most discussed was the relation between the Church and the Jewish people... The final result was neither very good, nor very bad: it was a compromise addressed to Catholics; a pastoral document in a positive spirit, and as such a revolutionary declaration compared with the statements of former Councils.
The Vatican Document is an important step, but it is only a first official step. It is a theoretical statement, the result of a painfully-won insight on the part of leaders of the Catholic Church. All will depend on whether – and how – this document is put into practice.”
Dr. Rijk surveyed what had begun.
Bishops in various countries had been active in implementing the declaration. They had changed the textbooks and sought “another social attitude – a more open, human and biblical attitude – towards Jews.” Let me illustrate his remarks about “another social attitude” by a personal recollection.
When I left Melbourne early in 1958 a Catholic staff member of the United Jewish Education Board was unsure whether she could attend my farewell at a synagogue hall. 15 years later my induction at the Great Synagogue, Sydney, was attended in an official capacity by the Catholic Archbishop, Cardinal Freeman.
There had certainly been a change in social attitudes. The real change that was needed was a change in a deeply rooted, traditional mentality, which “has consciously, or even more – unconsciously – an impact on all aspects of human behaviour.”
The process was working slowly and on the whole positively, and then came the Six Day War. Jews were in agony and bitter at the silence of the churches. It was clear that neither side really understood each other. Christians, said Dr. Rijk, “Had placed Judaism in their own categories of thinking.” The dialogue had “not yet touched the real problems.”
Grass-roots Catholics are still hazy in their understanding of Jews (they don’t know their own faith so well either), but the leaders of Catholic opinion (except for some prelates who are not yet entirely up with the new thinking) are now far more aware of how Jews and Judaism really function. Many Catholic bishops deserve credit for their sensitivity to Jewish concerns and for their disquiet when critical issues are not handled well in Rome.
There have been a number of such issues, often involving Israel and the Holocaust. Chaim Potok said that “the Jew sees all his contemporary history through the ocean of blood that is the Holocaust.” One might add, “and through the joy that is Israel, and the agony of Middle East terrorism.” The Church has followed up Nostra Aetate by a series of documents which clarify its attitude to the seminal events of modern Jewish history, and Pope John Paul II constantly demonstrated his sensitivity. But somewhere in the Church things were allowed to disturb the peace on several occasions, such as the Auschwitz convent episode, the proposed beatification of individuals with inappropriate attitudes to Jews, the withholding of certain archival material, the perceived whitewashing of the wartime pope, the lack of protest when Syria’s president exploited a papal visit to make outrageous statements about Jews, and the apparent silence when terrorism attacked Israel and Israelis. There is also the peculiar reception of Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, which is a sheer travesty of history.
Yet the post-1965 documents issued by the Church roundly condemn anti-Semitism, and the Vatican has established formal relations with Israel. Some Jews explain the times of tension between Catholicism and the Jewish world on the basis that there is a residual feeling that Jews deserve what they get and that the survival of Judaism and the resurgence of Israel still constitute a theological scandal for certain quarters within the Church. Leading Catholics assure me that this is not the explanation and that it is not a lack of goodwill which is to be blamed but a culture of ineptitude which affects internal Catholic affairs as much as or more than the Church’s engagement with ecumenism and inter-religious harmony.
It is all a work in progress. Nostra Aetate changed the Church from what I have heard described (none too delicately) as a predatory bully, to a world faith ready to discourse with other world faiths. The Jewish chapter moved the Church from a mentality of hostility to a sibling convinced that Catholics and Jews are both partners in the mystery of God’s plan. There is still a way to go. But we are embarked upon the path. And if I needed personal evidence I would have to say that the Catholic lady from the Jewish Education Board office who feared official retribution for attending my farewell in Melbourne in 1958 would be amazed and awed to learn that another farewell to me, when I retired from the Great Synagogue in 2005, was not only attended by friends from many faiths but by not less than three Cardinals.